The organizers of the present seminar have proposed me the topic “Identity and Difference: In Post Modern Perspective”, however, I have taken the liberty to change the topic as “Identity and Difference: In Post modern and Postcolonial Perspectives”. Post modernism and Post colonialism are closely related ideational movements that have come to prominence from the late decades of 20th century and continue to exert influence in present times too. The idea behind the change I have made in the topic is that modernity landed upon the Asian, African and Latin American countries in the name of colonialism and consequently, when the Europeans are speaking about post modernism, we are to speak about post colonialism. Post colonialism brings home the theme of post modernity into the conditions of the so-called third world countries like India that were under direct colonial rule till the middle of 20th century.
At the Meeting Point of Marxism and Existentialism
The western writers hold the view that the theme of identity and the phenomenon of identity movements are related to the emergence of post modern conditions. They consider that along with post modernism, a disillusion on Enlightenment reason, and consequently, on essentialist politics aimed on universal, emancipatory and objective progress has set in. Once the grand narratives of conventional modernity have come to an end , the politics of group identities have entered into the political arena. “The idea of politics based upon group identity, as opposed to interest, reform or ideology, has entered the public consciousness of a number of democratic states over the last two decades… [As each of the enlightenment projects] has waned, social ferment has sustained its power and impetus by encouraging an inward, reflexive turn-towards the self, the body and culture.” . Post modernism through its discussions for a while on multiculturalism and politics of migrated and diaspora populations in the west has now set upon the inevitability of politics of identity.
However, I think that well before the beginning of the post modern thinking, the theme of identity had its origin. Philosophically, the theme of identity got its impulse at the meeting point of Existentialist philosophy, national liberation movements and Marxist thought. Let me first clarify this statement.
As we know, the phenomenological and existentialist philosophies appeared in Europe in contrast to the objectivist approach vogue in European rationalism and positivism that offered the philosophical foundations of science and technology in Europe. Existentialism emerged talking about the human moment in knowing, experiencing and in living. The Cartesian priority of thought was challenged and the world as lived by the humans came to the forefront. This means to say that in place of the raw objectivity, a non-dualistic continuum of subject and object was made the centre of philosophizing.
It is interesting to see the implications of the existentialist continuum of subject and object to the Marxist theory and practice. I do not think that Marxism is much away from the idea of the subject-object continuum. In Marx’s early writing titled “Theses on Feuerbach”, Marx criticises the raw objectivist approach and very clearly states that his methodology is the dialectics of subject and object. The first thesis on Feuerbach states, “The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism is that the thing, reality, sensuousness is conceived only in the form of the object, or of contemplation, but not as human sensuous activity, not subjectively.” (2). Marx here decisively moves away from objectivism to subject-object dialectics. However, the known Marxist theory in the late 19th and first decades of 20th centuries spoke of celebrating the objective scientific approach to social revolution. Marxism then claimed to be a scientific philosophy that predicted the objective and inevitable course of social development towards social revolution. It announced that societies were divided into socio-economic classes and the class struggles would inevitably lead to social revolution. The theory of class struggle, thus, was overwhelmingly celebrated by the teachers of Marxism that it was scientific and objective. Leave away the Marxists of the European continent, the third world revolutionaries, particularly from Africa and West Indies, were immeasurably attracted by the revolutionary spirit of Marxism, even by its objectivism, however, soon found it difficult to apply the objectivist theory of class struggle in the concrete conditions of their own countries. This was due to the fact that the pure economic classes of bourgeoisie and proletariats were miserably absent in countries of Africa and West Indies. On the other hand, there were native communities colonized by the Europeans, economically exploited, racially insulted and humiliated by the Whites, rising against colonialism and racism in countries of Africa, West Indies and Latin America. The Blacks of Africa felt that they were oppressed not alone by economic exploitation but also by “non-economic” factors such as political colonialism, White-racism and Euro-centrism.
The African scholars came to the philosophical realization that the combined exploitation by both economic and non-economic domination was almost equivalent to the existentialist continuum of subject and object about which we spoke earlier. If the economic exploitation comes under the category of pure objectivism, the combination of economic and non-economic factors comes closer to the existentialist category of subject-object continuum. In the absence of pure classes in Africa and West Indies, thinkers like C.L.R.James, Senghor and Franz Fanon started writing about the identity movements that organically resist the economic, social and cultural forms of exploitation and discrimination. C.L.R.James derived the subject-object dialectics even from the Hegelian philosophy. He quotes the words of Hegel, “In my view, everything depends on grasping and expressing the ultimate reality not as Substance but as subject as well.” (3). One of the European existentialists who strongly inspired this way of thinking was the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. In Africa and West Indies, identities replaced the classes or identity movements became more inclusive than the Marxist class movements. In Althusserian terms, identity is an over-determined concept than the concept of class that is singularly determined by economic relations. According to Louis Althusser, identity is multi-structurally conditioned and condensed, whereas class, as it is popularly known, is basically determined by the economic structure. It can be broadly stated that the theme of identity became the political and cultural discourse of the countries of colonial modernity whereas the theory of classes remained the discourse of the advanced capitalist countries of Western Europe.
At this level we can also state that the identity movements anchor more upon cultural politics than the modernist political discourse. The term culture synchronizes economic and non economic, political and socio-psychological, the subjective and objective aspects of human existence. In Marxist terms, culture is a synthetic or dialectical (indeterminate) realm where components of base and superstructure interact multifariously. An objectivist or scientific understanding may predict a singular course of historical development. But where subjectivity is involved and where socio-psychological and super-structural components are involved, the course of development shall be inevitably multiple and indeterminate in character.
Identity Movements in Asiatic Societies
The political possibility of the emergence of identity movements in Asiatic societies was noticed by Marx himself in his own days. From the middle of 1860s, Marx began to mention about the specificities of Asiatic societies in countries like India, Russia and China where he noticed the prevalence of communes that continued to be present till the middle of 19th century. “Here the whole does not simply consist of its parts. It is a form of independent organism.. The intrinsic unity of the members of the community is embodied in descent, language, common past and history etc.” (4). We find that Marx’s understanding of Asiatic societies gives space for anticipating the emergence of identity movements in terms of descent (birth or caste?), language, religion, history etc. Marx wrote that the absence of private property in land, predominance of community ownership in villages and the despotic state authority were the bases of what he called the Asiatic Mode of Production in the Eastern countries. Marx acknowledged that economic and non-economic forms of exploitation and dominance combined to operate in Asiatic societies. It has to be mentioned that under the category of non-economic or extra-economic forms of exploitation in Asian countries, Marx included the active participation of religion and culture justifying and safe-guarding the course of exploitation, oppression and discrimination. This is the moment where we come to realize the combined role of basis and superstructure acting together to realize the mechanisms of social exploitation. This is also the moment where the objective and subjective forms of dominance, and consequently, forms of resistance come together that go with the name of cultural politics.
The presence of communes in Asiatic societies does not mean absence of exploitation. On the other hand, the Asiatic societies exhibited communal forms of exploitation, as a result making the society into a multi-structural, multi-sectoral and hierarchical one. Indian society, for example, is divided and ordered in caste hierarchy where the surplus product produced by a community as a collective entity is appropriated by another caste as a collective entity. Similarly, the cultural and spiritual surplus (Religious privileges, religiously sanctioned social privileges etc.) too was appropriated and enjoyed on communal grounds. Existence of such multiple castes within a hierarchy informs us that in the typical conditions of Asiatic societies, there are three basic moments immanently operating namely identity, difference and hierarchy.
Continuing the Marxist discussion, we can state that the multi-structural, multi-sectoral and communal societies of the East were the fertile lands for the emergence of identity movements during the colonial modern period. We want to assert that the identity movements of late 19th and 20th centuries have the characteristic feature of early and colonial capitalism, however, well rooted in the multi-sectoral past of the respective countries. The colonial modernity created a non-traditional public space in the countries of the East and identity movements in terms of language, caste and religion came to occupy that new space. It is not excluded that the colonial rule encouraged such semi-traditional and semi-modern divisions for its own political advantage.
Identity and Difference among the Tamils
Historically, the earliest mobilization of Tamil identity is noticeable among the Sri Lankan Tamils when Arumuga Navalar, the reputed Saivite scholar, resisted the spread of Christianity and the consolidation of colonial culture among the Jafna Tamils. Navalar felt a threat to Saivite religion, the Tamil ethos and the educational rights of the Tamils from the colonial rule. The religious moment was explicit in the discourses of Arumuga Navalar. “A certain identity is picked up from the whole field of differences, and made to embody this totalizing function. This is exactly what privileging means.” (5). Socially, Navalar represented the Jafna Vellala caste groups. Thus it was the unity of Saivism, Tamil and the upper castes among the Tamils. The influence of Arumuga Navalar was well articulated in the peninsular Tamil land too. His activities were stretched to Chidambaram and other Saivite localities of Tamil main land and were patronised by the Saivite mutts of Tamilnadu. Manonmaniam Sundaram Pillai and Maraimalai Adigal continued the line of thought of Arumuga Navalar taking the Tamil Saivite identity into the 20th century.
As Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe inform, any identity construction, in our case the Tamil Saivite identity, operates through construction of an equivalential chain among the differing moments. “There is an accumulation of unfulfilled demands and an increasing inability of the institutional system to absorb them in a differential way (each in isolation from the others), and an equivalential relation is established between them… One precondition for the emergence of populism is the expansion of the equivalential logic at the expense of the differential one.” (6). An equivalence is created between Tamil language, Tamil culture, Tamil region (Thennadudaya Sivane Potri) and Saivism. It equates Saivism and the Tamil ethos conceived as love (Anbe Sivam). The hegemony of the Non-Brahmin upper caste of the region is behind the operation of equivalence. A hegemony always cements or mosaics the differences. An identity also has a frontier (Laclau) or antagonism (Zizek) against which it focuses its identity. The Saivite identity that emerged against Christianity in Sri Lankan conditions afterwards constructed a more active frontier against Brahmanism in the main land, particularly through the activities of the Justice Party. The Tamil-Saivite-Vellala hegemony and its anti-Brahmanic frontier have continued to play their pivotal role all through the 20th century. Deleuze, a post modern scholar, states that identity construction operates through a process called Repetition. The Tamil identity has found its hundreds of repetitive mechanisms to assert its continuous cultural and political need.
One of the major challenges to the Tamil Saivite Identity that emerged towards the end of 19th century was the Neo-Buddhist movement of Iyotheedasa Pandithar. It was a breech in the core of the Tamil Saivite identity. Otherwise said, it was an articulation of the politics of difference regarding the Tamil identity. Iyotheedasa Pandithar could prove very eruditely that Buddhism in Tamil land was chronologically more ancient than Saivism. He showed that the ancient Buddhists had more solid contributions to the making of Tamil language, literature, culture and ethos. As well, Pandithar identified the ancient Buddhist ethos with that of the living folk culture of the Dalits. Well, here too we find the construction of an equivalential chain between Tamil language, Culture and the religion of the Buddha. Iyotheedasa Pandithar could show that the Tamil-Buddhist-Dalit identity was more rational and moralistic than that of the Saivite one.
Iyotheedasa Pandithar too constructed a frontier which apparently almost coincided with that of the Tamil Saivite identity. He too considered that Brahmanism was the basic cause of the caste system and for the loss of the Buddhist past. However, there was another frontier implicit in the scheme of Iyotheedasa Pandithar that was against the upper caste domination of the Tamil identity. The first one dominated and suppressed the other for a long time. However, a shifted sress has come up in recent times.
It is important to note here that Iyotheedasa Pandithar has brought into modernity the oldest of Indian cultural contradiction, namely that between Buddhism and Brahmanism. Later Dr. Ambedkar continued this theme and it has never lost its potential all through the 20th century (in 21st century too). Ambedkar brought out the entire social content of the contradiction between Buddhism and Brahmanism in Indian history.
Iyotheedasa Pandithar has brought out the inner difference and agony within the Tamil identity. He has focussed upon the fact that an identity can be constructed from above as well as from below. In a sense, it is in tune with the Marxist model that a class approach is necessary to assess an identity, whether it is from above or from below. Pandithar represented an identity from below.
The contradiction between the Tamil Saivite identity and Tamil Buddhist identity found a reconciliation by the 20s of 20th century when Periyar appeared in the political scene of Tamilnadu. The Self-Respect movement of Periyar pushed backwards the religious dimension of the Identity and made the Dravidian identity common to the Tamils, more broadly, common to all south Indians. The Dravidian identity became a successful floating signifier (Laclau) for the making of Tamil identity. The anti-Brahmin frontier too got strengthened by the activities of Periyar. Periyar brought forward the political dimension of the Tamil identity movement by opening up the anti-Congress frontier. The identity from below was developed by Dr. Ambedkar in national level with its cultural and political frontiers.
During the period between 1920 and 1940, Singaravelu, the founding member of Communist politics in Tamilnadu, proposed a combined politics of class and identity in Marxist lines. The attempts of Singaravelu and Jeevanandham to turn Periyar towards the left ended in failure. Periyar ultimately yielded to the Justice group and remained confined to his Dravidian politics. As such, a synchronized movement of class and identity politics could have brought better results in Tamilnadu. But it did not materialise then. Even the post-independent politics of Tamilnadu demands such a unity or dialogue of class and identity movements.
Once the colonial rule has ended, more and more of fragmented groups have entered into the identity politics. The identity movements have come to stay as the dynamic and pluralizing components of the making of Indian democracy, not only in Tamilnadu but all over India. It is true that the knowledge of post modern conditions in the global politics has substantially contributed to the strengthening of identity politics. The ethnic conflicts in Sri Lanka have reinforced the construction of Tamil linguistic identity from the late 20th century. Similarly, the developments after Dr. Ambedkar’s birth centenary have revived the identity constructions of Dalits from below. One important conclusion that we can derive from the above discussion is that the social question i.e., the existence of castes as the Indian reality, persistently haunts any other identity construction in terms of nation, language, religion or region. It shows that without addressing the caste reality, no identity movement or class movement can be constructed or consistently developed. The author of the present paper considers that a greater dialogue between the Left movements and Identity movements, between Class and Identity would open up new chapters in radicalizing and pluralizing the politics of Indian democracy.
1. Michael Kenny (20004), The Politics of Identity, Polity:Cambridge. P.vii, 118
2. Marx, Engles and Lenin, On Historical Materialism, Progress, Moscow, 1974. P. 11
3. C.L.R.James, Notes on Dialectics, Allison and Busby, L., 1980. P.8
4. Marx and Engels, Pre-capitalist Socio-economic Formations, Progress, Moscow, 1979. P. 94
5. Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason, Verso, 2007. P.81
6. Ibidem. P. 73, 78